I had an interesting conversation with someone recently, a conversation I have actually had with this person several times before, about a novel she was reading. She remarked that she didn’t know how the author knew the things he has written. In this case, it was how some Germans had behaved in WWII. The author of the book in question was born in 1973, and would have not had personal experience in 1940’s Germany. In my side of the conversation, I tried to explain that fiction writers do research, but that they also depend on the power of their own imaginations. The person with whom I had this conversation did not, and had not ever really understood this.
I do not know how Anthony Doerr wrote All the Light We Cannot See, but I do know how I write, and how a number of other people write. I can imagine that Doerr “saw” an image or a scene before the whole story came to him, the grotto beneath the St. Malo wall and the snails that lived there, or the model of the cities that the father builds for his blind daughter. Once I have an image like that, the story unfolds around it, and it could well be that Doerr’s experience was similar.
I once heard Cormac McCarthy talking about how he came to write The Road where he said that he had seen a landscape with devastated smoke stacks and cinder covered ground, and that scene pushed him to write the story. What literalists do not understand is that the story spins out of our heads in ways that are both magical and hard work. Science fiction and fantasy writers know this well because they take us to places that are not “real” in the sense that my literalist friend would believe. Interestingly enough this person has never liked stories that are not “real.”
But what is “real” when it comes to stories? I am not sure writers need to answer this question, but I do think perhaps some readers do. While characters exist on a page and really only on a page, once we read the story, those characters live in our own heads, we carry them with us. When I was a child, I am told, a dear elderly neighbor read to me and she told me once that I used to say to her when she read Mary Poppins to me, “Is it believe? Let’s pretend it’s believe.” Already, although I didn’t know it at the time, with those words, I demonstrated that I had the heart of a fiction writer. Let’s pretend that this fictional world is the one that exists.
In a time when an angry young man shoots nine people in a church simply for the color of their skin, we desperately need stories that tell us that humans can behave honorably, stories where children can learn that bravery is admirable, that kindness is worthy. Reading fiction can introduce us to experience that is different, to the ideas, thoughts and cares of “the other.” There is good evidence that reading good fiction can teach empathy. Anthony Doerr’s book shows us both the worst and the best of humankind. Cormac McCarthy shows us love in unrelentingly awful situations. We need our fiction writers, we need to be teaching reading and writing, we desperately need to be teaching young people that it is possible to imagine a better world because the world in which we currently live is often so full of anger, of hate and ugliness. Fiction can teach us again and again how to human beings should and can behave.